Woody Allen's Barcelona Problem

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Manu Fernandez / AP

Woody Allen, right, directs actress Scarlett Johansson on the set of his movie in Barcelona

Woody Allen was engulfed by adoring fans in mid-June when he came to Barcelona to scout locations along the city's famed artery, Las Ramblas. The director returned the ardor, promising the movie he has since started filming there would be "a love letter to Barcelona." Alas, the romance may not survive the summer. Weeks of roadblocks and a dispute over subsidies have made some Barcelonans regret letting the American cinematic icon use their city as a movie set.

The film, reportedly called Midnight in Barcelona and slated for a September 2008 release, stars Scarlett Johansson as an American tourist caught in a love triangle with a local painter (Javier Bardem) and his jealous ex-girlfriend (Penélope Cruz). Given Allen's trademark of turning the cities in which he shoots into distinct characters (Manhattan; the London of Match Point), Barcelona can expect a loving portrayal of its ancient streets and charming port restaurants.

But at what cost? Citizens and opposition political leaders alike are complaining about the toll the project is taking on the local community. To accommodate recent shoots, for example, the city's Socialist government shut down part of Las Ramblas, obstructing the locals' morning stroll and blocking access to many restaurants. That might be a tolerable burden, except that Barcelona has paid for the privilege: roughly 10% of the film's budget, it is now known, comes from the pockets of taxpayers in the city and its region, Catalonia. "It's not just the money, and we don't have any problem with the movie," says Alberto Fernández of the opposition conservative Popular Party. "It's the attitude the city government has toward Allen. They give him privileges as if he were a visiting dignitary or head of state, while they don't treat Spanish and Catalan movie projects that way."

While the municipal government acknowledges putting more than $1.3 million into the film, "the money is an investment made through a private capital risk company — it's not a subsidy," says Carles Puig, spokesperson for the mayor. "If the film makes a profit, then so does the city government." But that doesn't settle the issue, according to Jaume Ciurana, the main opposition party Convergence and Union's representative to the city's Institute of Culture. "The private risk society [BCN Ventures] is legitimate, but it was created by the city government to support young, innovative, struggling artists — not world-renowned filmmakers like Woody Allen. It was irresponsible for city hall to invest so much public money without first seeing a business plan or the film's total budget."

As for traffic congestion and other problems caused by the film's production, "Allen's film is no different than any big budget project," notes Steven Guest, also with the mayor's office. "Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother shut down Ferran Street a couple of years ago, and television shoots close streets every day. The only complaints I've seen have been in the media." For now, Barcelona's relationship with Allen can cool off a bit. On Monday, cast and crew began shooting in Oviedo, the less cosmopolitan capital of the region of Asturias, eight hours to the west. That city's spokesperson, Pilar Ávila, hasn't heard any complaints about Allen's shoot here so far: "Just the opposite — people are delighted," she says. Perhaps this is because Oviedo, unlike glamorous and popular Barcelona is happy to bask in a little international attention. Or it may be, as Ávila notes, because Oviedo's investment in the film so far amounts to "not a single euro."